Todd Shotz (right) with actor Rhea Perlman during the filming of "You People." (Photo/Courtesy Shotz)
Todd Shotz (right) with actor Rhea Perlman during the filming of "You People." (Photo/Courtesy Shotz)

The Judaism consultant for Netflix’s ‘You People’ talks about that Yom Kippur scene

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One of the first scenes of “You People,” the controversial new Netflix rom-com about a white Jewish-Black Muslim couple, takes place during Yom Kippur services. In the scene, the Los Angeles congregation recites the confessional Viddui prayer and listens to a rabbi’s sermon while members of the Cohen family — Bubbe (Rhea Pearlman), mom Shelley (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), dad Arnold (David Duchovny), son Ezra (Jonah Hill, who co-wrote the film and is Jewish) and daughter Liza (Molly Gordon) — bicker over Ezra’s appearance, specifically his tattoos.

The authenticity of the scene, from the tallits and kippot the mostly non-Jewish actors wear to their breast-beating motions during Viddui, is thanks to the film’s Jewish cultural consultant, Todd Shotz. Born in Philadelphia, Shotz is an L.A.-based film producer who moonlights as an adviser to productions that include Jewish characters and content. In addition, he runs a b’nai mitzvah tutoring service called Hebrew Helpers.

On the latest episode of our podcast, The Bagel Report, we spoke with Shotz, 49, about his work on “You People,” which has drawn no small amount of criticism from Jewish viewers. Below are highlights from that conversation, which you can listen to in its entirety here.

On how he became involved with the production:

I was brought on as the Jewish technical adviser by the lead producer, Kevin Misher, who I know through Penn alumni stuff — through our university organization — and I also taught his kids [through Hebrew Helpers]. And so when he was putting this movie together, he called me and said, “We need some expert advice.” And so I was thrilled that he called me.

I think he’s made like 40 movies, and he is such a dear person to me. And he knew that they needed some outside consultation. And it was very important to him, as it was to [co-writer and director] Kenya Barris, to make sure that it was very accurate as far as the Jewish representation, especially in the synagogue scene.

On why Jewish cultural consultants like him are necessary:

There are so many examples of where Jewish representation is … it’s just, like, why didn’t they ask someone? I think it may have been because there were so many Jewish writers and producers already on set — not to be too stereotypical, but there are a lot of Jewish people involved in Hollywood. Big shocker, I know.

I’m getting calls: ‘We need those scarf things. What are the scarf things?’

But it was almost like assumed that everybody would just know what was the correct Hebrew pronunciation or what was appropriate for a certain sect within Judaism. And it wasn’t necessarily the case. And so I was so thrilled that they were asking me to help them figure out what was going to be accurate based on the characters, based on the situation and based on the overall arc of the movie.

On working with the wardrobe staff to ensure that all of the actors in the Yom Kippur scene would wear synagogue-appropriate clothing:

I’m getting calls, and I don’t remember who it was, it was either from props or from wardrobe: “We need those scarf things. What are the scarf things?” And they meant it with every positive intention. They meant it in a really loving way. They had done tons of research about what the synagogue should look like and what people should be wearing. And I even consulted on what color the suits should be for both the lead cast and the background that they gave costumes to, about what would be appropriate in a service like this.

I keep so many kippot from all these different bar mitzvahs [that I attend], and I was like, this is what I’m gonna do with them. And so I went through all the kippot that I wanted to keep … because the wardrobe person was going to pick up all of the kippot from me that I had. People collect them from bar mitzvahs, so someone [in the congregation] would have the green suede one or the blue suede one and somebody would have [one] with the silver trim and someone would have the nylon, so I really tried to make sure it was very varied.

On teaching 200-odd background actors how to perform the Viddui prayer:

I gave a brief explanation of what the prayer was, and that they weren’t supposed to actually hurt themselves … that it was supposed to be a light tap of their fist over their heart. They were supposed to be mouthing [the words of the prayer], but no sound, which is very strange for anyone to be going through something, and they’re just mouthing words that many of them had no idea what it was supposed to be.

On the sermon given by the rabbi, played by real-life rabbi Amy Bernstein of Kehillat Israel in L.A.:

I helped Rabbi Amy Bernstein to script what sermon she was giving. Now she was mostly ad libbing. She’s an unbelievable orator, just really, really gifted. You notice the sermon that she’s giving, which I know nobody will catch it in the little snippet that you hear, she is talking about acceptance of the other. She and I were sitting in our trailers. Our trailers actually were connected by a connecting door … and so we spent time going over what she wanted to say.

On working with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and David Duchovny:

I had met [Louis-Dreyfus] before. Her best friend from college, I did her daughter’s bat mitzvah, so I have actually done the hora with Julia Louis-Dreyfus at a bar mitzvah.

She said to me right away, “I need your help because I’ve never really been to a Yom Kippur service.” Now it’s interesting, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is from a Jewish family, but only on one side. And it’s interesting, David Duchovny who plays her husband, his father was also a prominent Jewish person. I want to say he was the editor of the Forward. [Ed. note: Duchovny’s father, Amram, worked in public relations and wrote books. Duchovny’s grandfather, Moshe, was a Yiddish-language journalist in New York.]

So we had the whole day together. I’m back there with them in the principal room most of the time, waiting and waiting for the different shots to be set up. And so David is showing me all of these pictures on his phone of his father and of the Forverts [the Yiddish edition of the Forward], he’s even saying it like in the Yiddish, showing me all of these things and talking about how proud he was to actually be playing a Jewish character because he values so much the legacy of his father. It was very moving to me.

On the Yiddish scene that got cut from the film:

The way it was scripted is that Rhea Pearlman — Bubbe — has not met the bride-to-be. They’re walking around the room [during the rehearsal dinner], and Bubbe says, “This is beautiful. Look what you’ve done here. It’s a beautiful rehearsal dinner.” And so then they’re walking up [to Amira, Ezra’s fiancée, played by Lauren London], and she basically says, “I want a gin and tonic.” And so she almost tries to order a gin and tonic from them because they’re sitting at the high [couple’s] table and she doesn’t realize that she’s meeting the fiancée. And she says something in Yiddish, like, “Is this a shiksa? This is a shiksa?” Because she doesn’t understand that he’s marrying an African American woman.

I don’t know whether they cut it because it ended up being offensive. I don’t know. We really tried to make it so that it wasn’t. The original way it was scripted, it was too much. We pulled back. But I was literally getting calls around the clock the night before this was shooting with changes and changes and changes and changes to the scene.

We always say that you write the movie on the page, then you’re rewriting as you’re shooting, and then you completely rewrite the movie in editorial. So the movie that I read [as a script] … is not the movie that Esther [Kustanowitz, co-host of The Bagel Report] and I sat next to each other watching in the movie theater.

On what he thinks of the film:

I think they actually did a really good job of … pushing it just so far, so that the movie would ultimately be a conversation starter, and would evoke reactions out of people. I can’t imagine people are walking out of the theater or, like, just shutting it off Netflix, because it keeps you going the whole time.

I didn’t write it. I didn’t produce it. But it feels really cool that I got to be a part of this.

“You People” is streaming now on Netflix.

Erin Ben-Moche and Esther D. Kustanowitz
The Bagels

Erin Ben-Moche and Esther D. Kustanowitz are the hosts of The Bagel Report, an award-winning podcast about Jewish representation and identity in pop culture, produced by J. The Jewish News of Northern California in partnership with Jewfolk, Inc. New episodes are available on (most) Mondays on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.